Japan, as has been stated many times, has a marvelous ability to combine the ancient and the modern. Where else can you find medieval temples right next door to modern skyscrapers? Where else can you eat Japanese-style Salisbury steak in a retro lunch counter straight out of the American 1950s for lunch and then feast in a traditional shabu shabu restaurant for dinner? And no neighborhood in Tokyo combines new and old better than Asakusa. Join me for 24 Hours in Asakusa, and we will pretend to be ineffective firefighters, eat a cartoon character, and meet a giant lucky shoe.
Kissaten are Japanese versions of Western cafes that became popular in the period between the “opening” of Japan to Western influence in 1853 to World War II. You simply must experience one. They serve good coffee and “yoshoku”, which is a Japanese version of Western-style food. I found a lovely kissaten on Kiyosumi-dori right near the Edo Tokyo Museum. The adorable elderly owner spoke some English and had an English menu, so it was easy to order my breakfast.
The food you get at a kissaten will be neither Japanese nor anything like a traditional Western breakfast, but rather a strange melange of the two cultures. Breakfast will probably be a “morning set”, which is a dainty sandwich of some sort (I chose egg) and a cup of coffee. I was lucky because my fluffy egg sandwich came with a side of salad. Vegetables are good for you, even though I’m not used to eating salad for breakfast.
I regret that I was unable to ever discover the name of this restaurant, just an address if you use this link on Google Maps. But if you check out any small coffee shop (ie not Starbucks or Doutor), I’m sure you’ll have a similar experience.
Morning: Edo Tokyo Museum
Address: 1 Chome-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida, Tokyo
Hours: 9:30-5 Most Days, Open Until 7 Saturdays, Closed Mondays
Price: 600 Yen (About 6 Dollars)
The Edo-Tokyo Museum is dedicated to the history of Tokyo, from its earlier days as the home of the powerful shogun to its current prestigious point as the world’s most populous metropolis. When you visit the museum, you get to walk through floors of large-scale models recreating homes, buildings, and even whole neighborhoods from various periods of the city’s history. The English signage is plentiful and very helpful throughout, so it will be easy to come up with…
three fun facts about edo-tokyo
1) You may be wondering why this museum is called the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Well, our first fun fact is that Edo is the old name for Tokyo. It had the name Tokyo until 1869, when the Emperor moved to Tokyo and the city got a name upgrade. (Tokyo means Eastern Capital in Japanese.) But in fact, Edo/Tokyo had been a second capital for the Japanese for a long time, since the mighty shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu set up camp in Tokyo in the beginning of the 17th century. Even though the emperor of Japan lived in lovely Kyoto, the shogun, who was the real power behind the throne, had his base in Tokyo. So the original design of Tokyo was centered around the fancy shogun’s castle (see above) with the “shitamachi” or “lower city” where the reg’lar folks lived surrounding it.
I feel like this must have been super annoying for people who lived in between Tokyo and Kyoto because if the emperor and the shogun had a fight, you’d get caught right in the middle of it. It would be like being a child caught in between their parents during a dysfunctional divorce.
2) Shoguns aside, one of Tokyo’s most famous sons is the legendary Japanese woodblock print artist Hokusai who lived in Edo between 1760 and 1849. You can see a little toy Hokusai pictured with either his toy wife, mother, or daughter above. Even though Hokusai was a great artistic genius, he lived in a poor house in Tokyo most of his life. I really wonder whose job it was to make that tiny woodblock print that Toy Hokusai is working on. Did they get a special tiny brush? Do you buy special tiny paper like that at a store or do you just cut it yourself? I simply must know.
3) Post WWII Tokyo became modernized and mechanized at a rapid rate. This happened so quickly that many Japanese people had a joke that the three Sacred Treasures of Imperial Japan (the Emperor’s Sword, Mirror, and Jewel) had been replaced by the three sacred treasures of modern Japan: the refrigerator, the television, and the washing machine.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite part of the museum was the recreations of traditional Japanese forms of entertainment like our friend the Kabuki actor pictured above. If you can’t get to an actual Kabuki show when you are in Tokyo, this is the next best thing.
Travelerette Tip: The special exhibits are great at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, but if it’s your first time here, skip it. The permanent collection is more than enough to occupy your time.
Lunch: Restoran Kuinberu
Address: 1-25-5, Ishiwara, Sumida-ku
Hours: Closed Monday
OK, I’m going to do that crazy thing again where I recommend that you visit a restaurant with no English menu where the staff doesn’t speak English. But you can do it! This restaurant doesn’t even serve Japanese food, so it will be super easy.
Kuinberu is one of those “yoshoku” restaurants I mentioned earlier that serves Japanese takes on Western food. Kuinberu is like a Japanese version of a steakhouse/diner from the 1950s. Just come in, hold up the number of fingers of people in your party and you will be seated. When the waitress comes to take your order, say “steak o kudasai” and you will be presented with…a salad.
This is just an appetizer. You did not order it, but it came anyway. Lucky you! Then you get your steak.
The steak comes perfectly hot and sizzling on a burning hot metal dish. It is topped with a pat of butter that only makes the already rich steak richer and more satisfying. It is also accompanied by a dish of fluffy Japanese rice. I never really imagined Japanese rice going with steak, but unlike the Emperor and the shogun, they are a match made in heaven.
Travelerette Tip: This is not a vegetarian restaurant. Don’t eat here if you are a vegetarian.
Early Afternoon: Senso-Ji
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa
There are two main kinds of religious structures in Japan. There are Buddhist temples, dedicated to various bodhisattvas, and there are Shinto shrines, dedicated to Shinto kami, aka nature spirits. Senso-ji is a Buddhist temple.
Buddhism, as is the case with pretty much every major religion, is not practiced the same way in every country. In Japan, Buddhism often looks more like a polytheistic religion than it does in other countries. Many schools of Buddhism in Japan incorporate the worship of nature gods, and bodhisattvas tend to play an important role in religious practice. Senso-ji is dedicated to a bodhisattva named Kannon, who is associated with compassion.
Senso-ji, like most other ancient structures in Tokyo, was rebuilt after the war and it is a marvel. The entrance to the temple is a giant red gate called the Kaminarimon that features a breathtaking red lantern decorated with kanji that mean “Thunder Gate”. The area was jam-packed with tourists and I merrily joined their throng, taking pictures of myself with the big lantern. It was such a humid day that my hair was frizzing to oblivion, so I’ll not be sharing those photos of myself here. I am as vain as I am informative.
After the Thunder Gate comes Nakamise-dori. This is a preposterously long street, entirely coated with shops on both sides. Apparently it has always been traditional in Japan to sell goods to pilgrims and this is why you almost always see stores outside of shrines. I find it fascinating how many Japanese cultural rituals are related to shopping, but I’m sure I’d find just as many American shopping rituals if only it weren’t so much more difficult to notice oddities about one’s own culture.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite snack on Nakamise dori was the “Ice Cream Burger” which is really just an ice cream sandwich made with two wafer cookies shaped like lanterns. Where’s the beef? Well, instead of beef ice cream, which does not exist, I suggest you get taro ice cream, which is made with a kind of tuber and has a pleasing lavender color and creamy texture.
Once you make your way to the end of Nakamise dori, you will see the large gate pictured above. This is the Hozomon, or Treasure House gate, which is the inner gate leading to the Senso ji temple. You made it! But the princess is in another castle. So we have to go through this gate to get to the wonders of Tokyo’s most famous temple.
My recommendation is that you spend some time wandering around the gorgeous grounds of the temple and enjoying whatever strikes your fancy. But if you need a little help, here are:
the approximately top five best things to see at senso-ji
1) A giant slipper you can touch for good luck
2) Buddha statues from the 17th century
3) A monument to three Haiku poets inscribed with a haiku poem (very meta).
4) A gorgeous peaceful stream with a waterfall, historic stone bridge, and koi fish
5) This adorable puppy, which I sadly do not think is real.
Late Afternoon: Kappabashi Dori
One delightful thing about Japan is that the neighborhoods are partially organized according to shopping districts. One such shopping district is Kappabashi-dori, a street also known as Kitchen Town.
Kitchen Town specializes in selling the novels of Banana Yoshimoto (esoteric joke alert)! Really, it specializes in selling kitchen equipment. You won’t find food in Kitchen Town, just every kind of kitchen equipment conceivable. I saw bowls, knives, cups, teapots, chopsticks, plastic food models that go in restaurant windows, and bins of assorted equipment on sale, the purpose of which I could often not determine. This did not deter me from wanting to buy some of the objects in the bins—after all, who doesn’t love a sale?
You can’t go to Kappabashi-dori without buying something; that’s just science, and I wanted to pick up some real Japanese chopsticks. Some of the chopsticks were elaborately decorated with ukiyo-e prints and some were painted with neon colors. I wanted something cheap, so I bought an inexpensive, yet simple and elegant, set of black and brown carved wooden chopsticks. You, Internet Stranger, may purchase one of the neon ones if you wish. I won’t judge you. (Much.)
Travelerette Tip: I got a little lost and found this sign for Ninja Training, which got me really excited, but sadly I could never find out where this sign was pointing to. So no ninja training for me! I get my tip for you is that if you see a sign that promises ninja training, do not trust it.
Early Evening: Tokyo Sky Tree
Address: 1 Chome-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida
Hours: 8 AM-10 PM Every Day
Price: Combo Ticket (to both the 450th Floor and 350th Floor) 4000 Yen (About 40 dollars)
Ticket to the 350th Floor only: 3000 Yen
Tokyo Sky Tree is sadly not, as I first had thought, the sequel to Hayao Miyazaki’s classic film Castle in the Sky. Rather it is the second tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa. Hey, maybe that isn’t so disappointing after all! You need to go here if you want to get the highest views in Tokyo and also meet one of Tokyo’s newest mascots…Sorakara.
Sorakara is the little girl with the star-shaped head, and her name means “from the sky” in Japanese. I’m not sure who her penguin and puppy are, but I’m sure they have equally adorable names.
To go to the top of Tokyo Sky Tree, you need to go to the 4th floor and buy a ticket. The lines are rather long, but if there is a super long line and you have your passport on you, you can go to a separate ticket desk for foreign visitors, also located on the 4th floor.
Travelerette Tip: I didn’t pay the 1000 Yen extra to go to the 450th floor and now I regret that decision. How often am I going to get to see the Tokyo Sky Tree? I’m sure the experience would have been worth the extra ten dollars, given that the ticket is rather pricey to begin with.
Anyway, once you get your ticket, you take the elevator straight to the 350th floor. Then you can wander around and take pictures to your heart’s content between the 350th floor and the 340th floor. Here’s a photo of the view.
There’s a photo of the view.
And one more just for luck.
At the 340th floor, you take the elevator back down to the 5th floor so you can exit the Sky Tree. That’s so many unaccounted for floors!!!! What are they building on those floors? Is it top secret?
Travelerette Treasure: If your feet are tired, there is a little cafe on the 345th floor where you can rest them and get a little snack. I chose the Sorakara Parfait, which is made with strawberries, whipped cream, Jell-O, and a small wafer cookie shaped like a star-shaped little girl’s head. Was it the best thing I have ever eaten? No. Was it adorable? Absolutely.
If you are looking for a more authentic snack, try a Tokyo Banana. This is a sponge cake filled with a banana cream. They sell different flavors at different stores all over Tokyo, so you need to catch ’em all, like Pokemon. The one at the Tokyo Sky Tree is Maple Banana. What does this have to do with Sky Trees? Is it because maple is a kind of tree? I need to know.
Dinner: Asakusa Imahan
Address: 3-1-12 Nishiasakusa, Taito, Tokyo
Asakusa Imahan is a small upscale Japanese chain that specializes in serving shabu shabu and sukiyaki. I opted for the sukiyaki this time because I have eaten shabu shabu before. Sukiyaki is prepared by cooking thinly sliced beef and vegetables in a bowl of rice wine, soy sauce and sugar in a bubbling pot in the middle of the table. Then you dipped the cooked meat in raw egg and eat it. Fear not, Internet Stranger! If the raw egg squicks you, you don’t need to use it.
The waitresses at the shabu shabu shack were very, very polite, spoke excellent English, and managed to not laugh at my errors to my face. I was quite impressed because at most places I went to in Japan I spoke in Japanese because my Japanese was better than the English of the person I was speaking to. That was not the case at Asakusa Imahan. I don’t know if the waitresses were fluent in English or if they were just experienced in explaining the way of the shabu shabu to foreigners.
The first thing that I did wrong was try to enter the restaurant. The waitresses asked me to take my shoes off first. I did and noticed rows of pretty wooden sandals lined up in a row. These didn’t look like something you would wear on the street, so I thought I was meant to put them on and walk around the restaurant in them. The outraged, yet very polite, shriek that came from the waitresses indicated to me that I was not meant to wear these shoes. So word to the wise, when you see strange pairs of shoes in a restaurant, ask first before trying to put them on.
The next mistake was that I again tried to go into the dining room and have a seat. Instead, I was supposed to follow the waitress into the elevator to the third floor. There I was seated at a tiny sukiyaki table on the floor. I tried to place my legs somewhere where I could be comfortable and they wouldn’t fall asleep. I was totally unsuccessful in this attempt and I guesstimate that my feet fell asleep three times while I was eating. I felt like a bull in a shabu shabu shop.
I ordered a set menu, which started with an amuse bouche of salmon and nuts. I guess this makes sense because plenty of fish preparations have nuts in them, like trout almandine.
Next came a quintet of appetizers: mushrooms, fried seaweed, fishcake, shrimp, and octopus. The fried seaweed was my favorite just because everything is better when it’s fried. I was also impressed with the way the seaweed maintained its color, shape, and taste though it had been through the frying machine.
Now it was time for the main event: wagyu beef sukiyaki. Wagyu is Japanese for yummy, or at least it should be. Wagyu beef just has more of the good stuff (fat) than other kinds of beef and supposedly comes from happy cows that have been massaged and fed sake. I’m sure they were super happy up until the point that they were slaughtered, chopped up, and brought straight to my table so I could swirl them around in some warm sauce, dip them in egg, and eat them. Then they were maybe not so happy.
Travelerette Tip: Remember, the beef needs to be cooked just long enough for it to turn from pink to light brown. Any longer and it would be too tough. Then all I had to do was choose which sauce I wanted to put it in and voila! Instant yummy marbled beef. This was my idea of fast food.
The meal ends the same way pretty much every set dinner menu ends in Japan, with miso soup, rice, and pickles.
For a bonus, there was a chilled scoop of matcha green tea ice cream for dinner. I like the matcha ice cream because it’s not too sweet.
I did have to pay at the front desk and I was presented with a little box of toothpicks and a set of orange cards with delicate drawings of Asakusa Imahan drawn on them. I wish every restaurant gave such fancy parting gifts!
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Asakusa
What would you do with one day in Asakusa? What was the mysterious name of that cafe at which I had breakfast? And who is a better artist, Toy Hokusai or Toy Da Vinci? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.